Celebrating Invincible, Part 2

Willa:  A few weeks ago, Pamela visited our blog and posted this comment:

I think whenever Michael wrote a song about a woman, the woman was us, the fans. I think he understood the love affair we had for each other (the fans and Michael)…. I felt he looked at us, the fans, as a single relationship and that was his inspiration. If you follow his songs, according to the major events in his life, you can see the feelings he writes about are how he thinks the fans are feeling about him during that time.

I thought this beautifully expressed an idea Joie and I have felt also:  that Michael Jackson’s love songs can be interpreted as a romance with a woman, or more metaphorically as describing that ongoing “love affair” between him and his audience.

Seen in this way, it seems significant that Invincible has so many songs of unrequited or fading love. From “Heartbreaker” and “Invincible” in the thundering opening trilogy with their stories of cold-hearted women who don’t care about him or won’t give him a chance, to the lyrical “Don’t Walk Away” and “Whatever Happens” and their poignant depictions of a love affair in trouble and in decline, Invincible is filled with songs of unfulfilled love.

Joie:  Willa, you know before reading M Poetica, I never really spent much time thinking about the love songs in terms of Michael’s relationship with his audience. I mean, it was always just sort of there, beneath the surface. But I never really thought about it in depth before you and I began discussing his work in a serious way. And now that I have been focusing on it more, it is amazing to me how it just jumps out at you.

For instance, listening to “Don’t Walk Away,” these lyrics in particular really strike me as so meaningful when viewing this song through that lens of Michael and his audience:

Don’t walk away
See I just can’t find the right thing to say
I tried but all my pain gets in the way
Tell me what I have to do so you’ll stay
Should I get down on my knees and pray

How  can I stop losing you
And how  can I begin to stay
When there’s nothing left to do but walk away

I close my eyes
Just to try and see you smile one more time
But it’s been so long now all I do is cry
Can’t we find some love to take this away
‘Cause the pain gets stronger every day

It’s as if he is begging us – the audience – to tell him how to fix it. He’s not asking us what went wrong; he’s well aware of the problems this relationship has faced over the years. But he doesn’t want to let it die. This relationship is very important to him and he’s willing to work at it:  “Can’t you see, I don’t want to walk away,” he sings. He just needs to know how. He can’t figure it out so, he’s asking us. “How can I stop losing you?”

Willa:  Oh heavens, Joie, those lines are so heart-wrenching for me, especially that last line, “Cause the pain gets stronger every day.” And for me it’s not an either-or decision of ‘is he talking about a romance’ or ‘is he talking about his audience’ – it’s both, simultaneously. It works as the story of a fading love affair with a woman, and as the troubled “love affair” Pamela described that he had with us, his audience.

And when he goes on to sing, “How am I to understand . . . why all my dreams been broken?” I can’t help but think of the aftermath of the 1993 allegations and how devastating that was, both for him personally and in terms of his relationship with his audience. I imagine there were many times when he felt that things had become so bad, there really was “nothing left to do but walk away.” But he didn’t. He kept trying to make it work.

Joie:  It is just heartbreaking! And what makes it so painful in my mind are these lines:  “I close my eyes / Just to try and see you smile one more time / But it’s been so long now all I do is cry.” That just tears me apart. How many times did we hear him say that he just wanted to make people happy? That he loved to be able to put a smile on someone’s face with his music? That’s what it was about for him – making us happy. But somewhere along the way he lost us; and he’s acknowledging that and he wants to fix it. But he just doesn’t know how. It’s like he doesn’t understand what it is we want from him. What does he have to do to make the audience love him again?

Heartbreaking. Particularly because the audience he’s singing to – or at least, the ones who are still paying attention – are already firmly on his side. We never left him; we never stopped loving him. But this song isn’t really directed toward us – the fans. Its intended audience is made up of the others – those who fell away when things got uncomfortable (they know who they are), those who eagerly took part in all the MJ-bashing that went on (the media), and those who jumped on the bandwagon because it got them a laugh or two (late-night comedians, talk show hosts, et.al.). Those are the people he’s really singing to in this song. And, as always with the general public, his pleas fell on deaf ears. No one heard his cries but us – the fans.

Willa:  It is heartbreaking, and Joie, I think what you just said is so important. In fact, I think you put your finger on a crucial theme of this album. I was listening to all the songs of lost love on Invincible this afternoon and was really struck by this recurring theme that he’s inarticulate – either unable to speak at all, or speak in a way that will make a difference. In each of these songs, there’s a misunderstanding or some other barrier that is driving the couple apart or preventing them from connecting. He desperately wants to “tear down these walls” so she will see the truth and they will be united, but either he can’t speak or he can’t find the right words so she will listen to him. The title song, “Invincible,” begins with these lines:

If I could tear down these walls that keep you and I apart
I know I could claim your heart and our perfect love will start

But either he isn’t expressing himself in a way she understands, or she simply isn’t listening:

Now many times I’ve told you of all the things I would do
But I can’t seem to get through, no matter how I try to

As he tells us repeatedly in the chorus, “Even when I beg and plead, she’s invincible” – which perfectly parallels what you just said: “as always with the general public, his pleas fell on deaf ears.”

We see a similar situation in “Butterflies.” He’s trying to woo a woman, but he can’t speak, and she’s not listening anyway. It begins with these lines:

All you gotta do is walk away and pass me by
Don’t acknowledge my smile when I try to say hello to you
And all you gotta do is not answer my calls
When I’m trying to get through
Keep me wondering why, when all I can do is sigh

So again, he can’t communicate his thoughts and feelings to her – “all I can do is sigh.” As you quoted earlier, “Don’t Walk Away” begins with these lines:

Don’t walk away
See I just can’t find the right thing to say
I tried but all my pain gets in the way
Tell me what I have to do so you’ll stay
Should I get down on my knees and pray

This time he can speak, but not in a way that she understands – “I just can’t find the right thing to say” – so he silently prays instead.

He repeats this idea in “Whatever Happens,” a truly beautiful song I just love. (I played this song over and over while writing M Poetica. Writing that book took me to some pretty dark and uncomfortable places, and this song helped me get through it. I just kept playing that wonderful chorus – “Whatever happens, don’t let go of my hand” – and he sings it so beautifully). “Whatever happens” tells the story of a couple being torn apart by difficult circumstances in their lives, and once again his spoken words are ineffectual. All he can do is pray – in other words, speak to a higher power since he can’t seem to speak to her – and hope she somehow receives his message that way.

Everything will be all right, he assures her
But she doesn’t hear a word that he says
Preoccupied, she’s afraid . . .
He doesn’t know what to say, so he prays
Whatever happens, don’t let go of my hand

Over and over in these songs, we see this same situation of the protagonist unable to connect with the woman he loves because he can’t speak, and she can’t hear him – which is exactly how you described his relationship with the public at that time. He “can’t find the right thing to say,” and “she doesn’t hear a word that he says.” It’s pretty ironic because he’s an amazing songwriter and isn’t inarticulate at all. In fact, he’s very eloquent in describing his inarticulateness. However, it doesn’t matter how eloquent he is if his audience won’t listen to him, or misinterprets everything he says.

And then, in the midst of these songs of mute suffering, there’s “Speechless,” a beautiful expression of love and joy. The entire song is about his inability to speak – as the title says, he’s “speechless” – but it’s completely different this time. He’s speechless with joy. And even though he can’t speak, she understands and loves him anyway.

Joie:  Willa, I am floored! Until this very conversation I never paid attention to the fact there are so many songs on this amazing album that fit into this formula of parallel stories – a man and his lover / Michael and his audience. Or that have this recurring theme of not being able to communicate with the person he loves (or connect with his intended audience). Now I have to go back and listen to it all over again with new ears!

But, I love what you said about “Speechless” and I think the reason his inability to communicate feels different here is because, once again, his target audience is different. First of all, I firmly believe that this song is not about a romance but about the most precious thing in Michael’s life – his children. So, that’s the first story here. But the parallel, metaphorical story is that he’s singing to a very specific audience. That special group of people who have stood by him through thick and through thin; the millions of people whose love and support of him never wavered even when things got ugly. He’s talking to his fans here and he is so moved by the depth of their love that he can’t speak. That’s the reason she understands him anyway – because she (the fans) truly loves him unconditionally, and always has. She understands what he’s feeling even though he can’t put it into words.

Willa:  You know, when you said you felt “Speechless” was about his children, that reminded me of something Randy Taraborrelli wrote in his biography. He was doing a phone interview, I believe, and Michael Jackson told him that “Speechless” came to him while playing with a group of children. And of course, children are much more accepting than adults are. They don’t need to have everything explained to them in words – a hug works just as well. So thematically that fits also.

Joie:  Well, I am loving this whole month-long Invincible celebration and I hope everyone else is too. Next week we’ll be talking about Michael Jackson’s vocal range and the fact that he’s often not given the credit he deserves for being a truly talented vocalist – something that the Invincible album highlights perfectly!

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About Dancing with the Elephant contributors

Joie Collins is a founding member of the Michael Jackson Fan Club (MJFC). She has written extensively for MJFC, helping to create the original website back in 1999 and overseeing both the News and History sections of the website. Over the years she conducted numerous interviews on behalf of MJFC and also directed correspondence for the club. She also had the great fortune to be a guest at Neverland. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was three years old. Lisha McDuff is a classically trained professional musician who for 30 years made her living as a flutist, performing in orchestras and for major theatrical touring productions. Her passion for popular musicology led her to temporarily leave the orchestra pit and in June 2013 she received a Master’s degree in Popular Music Studies from the University of Liverpool. She’s continuing her studies at McMaster University, where she is working on a major research project about Michael Jackson, with Susan Fast as her director. Willa Stillwater is the author of M Poetica: Michael Jackson's Art of Connection and Defiance and "Rereading Michael Jackson," an article that summarizes some of the central ideas of M Poetica. She has a Ph.D. in English literature, and her doctoral research focused on the ways in which cultural narratives (such as racism) are made real for us by being "written" on our bodies. She sees this concept as an important element of Michael Jackson's work, part of what he called social conditioning. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was nine years old.

Posted on October 13, 2011, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 21 Comments.

  1. I enjoy your discussions very much. When I listen to Speechless, I see MJ standing before God.

    • Very nice poetic imagery, Sandra. I like that. I never thought of Speechless in terms of Michael singing to God but, that interpretation works. Interesting!

  2. I am absolutely loving reading what you guys write about every week! Michael was so phenomenal in his song writing and then the delivery with his amazing vocals. I look forward to every discussion. Thanks so much Willa & Joie.

    • Thanks, Anita. We appreciate your support! Michael is just so much fun to talk about and when you look at his work in a serious, meaningful way, there are so many topics that come up so, Willa and I are enjoying the discussions too!

  3. This blog has been my godsend, it really helps take my mind off the looming Murray trial, and focus on Michael’s music.

    Well, this post may be the answer to why I always bawl my eyes out and get goosebumps when I listen to Don’t Walk Away. I had always thought that there was something more to it, but never could figure out just what. I’m currently attempting to write a fantasy/action/kind of romance novel, and this is the song that inspired the heartbreak scene.

    I love these posts, and I love discussing all of what possibly went on behind the scenes of Michael’s creative process. Keep the conversations going ladies!

    • Emily, thank you so much for saying that. I am so happy that we could help distract you from the gloominess of the trial going on. That really means a lot to me.

      I think it’s awesome that you are writing a novel. Isn’t it cool how a song – or even part of a song – can inspire an idea that just stays with you and makes you want to create your own work of art based on that inspriation? Music is so amazing that way. And so is the written word. Very powerful. Good luck with your story!

  4. Here are the reasons I think that “Speechless” refers to MJ’s relationship to God:

    Though I’m with you I am far away and nothing is for real (heaven is for the spirit, not a physical place)
    My head’s spinning like a carousel, so silently I pray (pray to God)

    Nothing’s real, but all is possible if God is on my side
    When I’m with you I am in the light where I cannot be found (God as the light of the world, MJ cannot be found as an individual because he is a part of God)
    It’s as though I am standing in the place called
    Hallowed Ground (in the presence of God)

    I’ll go anywhere and do anything just to touch your face (to touch the face of God)
    There’s no mountain high I cannot climb
    I’m humbled in your grace (grace of God)

    But in your presence I am lost for words (in the Bible there are people who are struck dumb in the presence of God)

    • Hi Sandra. That’s really interesting. I’d never thought of “Speechless” in this way before, but you provide some pretty compelling examples. I’ve struggled with how to interpret some of these lyrics, including a couple you just cited: “Though I’m with you I’m far away and nothing is for real” and “When I’m with you I am in the light where I cannot be found.” And he was a spiritual person who sometimes incorporated his spiritual ideas and feelings into his songs. For example, “Will You Be There” begins with the line “Hold me like the River Jordan.” Hmmm . . . It’s very interesting. Thanks for giving me a new way of seeing this.

    • Sandra, I just love this! Thank you for sharing your interpretation with us. You have made look at Speechless in an entirely new way and I have to say that I think you are right on the money here. I have always just assumed that this song was sort of a love song to his children. And we know that he was inspired to write it while playing with a group of children.

      But how many times did we hear Michael say that when he looked at children, he saw the face of God? He said it many times. So, I think that you have hit on something here that makes total sense. Perhaps this song isn’t just a love song to his kids but, to God himself. Really interesting thought. Again, thank you for sharing it!

    • Sandra, this is how i always heard this song too… thanks for sharing.

    • Sandra, I agree with you completely, I always thought of Speechless as a song to God. In the introdution he also says “gone is the grace for expressions of passion”. To me, this is a hint that he’s actually talking about a different kind of love.

    • just want to add that i have the exact same feelings as Sandra’s, Mare’s and Floriceg’s on Speechless, really glad to know that i m not the only one 🙂 it’s interesting for me to feel Michael’s strong love in God when listening to this song coz I m not quite a religious person. And it’s very emotional for me when I listen to this song in the dark that my tears just run down everytime.

  5. why is it no one thinks michael could of really had relationships,he even wrote a song about it i think on the michael cd, why is it i cant fall in love. i think mike had lots of relationships just kept it privete.

    • Hi Tiger. That’s a good point. While I think it’s really valuable to look at these songs more metaphorically, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that they’re still poignant love songs as well.

    • Hi Tiger. I agree with you. I believe Michael had relationships that the public will never know anything about. However, I do think that most of his work is best interpreted metaphorically – simply because we will never know if the love songs were written about a specific person or not.

  6. I wanted to share… saw Cirque, Michael Immortal last night in Detroit. If you like this blog you will especially love that show. It was so beautiful, i did significantly miss the tree as a focal symbol because of it being so representative of Michael. Human Nature was like DNA spiraling in space illuminated… The female artists in Dangerous and Is it scary really depicted a compelling yet dark and powerful force like was discussed in prior blogs. Go see it.

  7. I am really looking forward to next week when you two discuss Michael’s vocal range. I have done much looking into this aspect of Michael. I am not a singer (well, in the car) but his voice has invoked an interest into learning about vocals so that I can understand him more; not to mention I am always enchanted by the sounds coming from his body. Apart from vocal range, but related is when Michael would make nonverbal sounds. I think it tells us something about him in an intuitive way because I can’t always verbally convey what the sound means but I feel the emotion that I think he was conveying at the time. The sounds I am thinking of are even sometimes “off” or maybe “out of tune” (again, I’m not a musician or vocalist, just a seeker of the essence of Michael-ness). I will listen to Invincible this afternoon to see if I can site some examples, but I bet you probably have noticed this too. The quality I can most effectively say I feel is what I think is musical dissonance, where the artist displays a quality in their art that makes you think beyond what is obvious and sometimes think in a way that brings out an uncomfortable sense. With Michael it seems to be bringing out a very human-ness in him that some people sadly forgot about. For example, in I Just Can’t Stop Loving You, toward the end during some ad-libing he says, “Oh” in what sounds not completely polished. He could have refined that in some way, but did not. You can hear so much in that one word with only one syllable. If I find a good example in Invincible I will comment on it. In the meantime, thank you for this blog. The “feel” of your opinions, even though some of the art brings out sadness for us that Michael had so much sadness/confusion at times, is positive in that we are learning/talking about what he held so close to his heart and what he was practically made of..his music.

    • Monica, I know exactly what you mean in talking about Michael’s ‘non-verbal’ sounds in many of his songs. Those non-verbals are something that he was very, very good at in terms of conveying emotion. And there are numerous examples throughout his entire body of work. And I have often focused on that example you pointed out from “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.” You’re right, that one “Oh” embodies so much feeling and emotion and passion – it is amazing really. I can’t think of any other artist who has that ability to deliver so much meaning and feeling in their non-verbal grunts and “oh’s.”

  8. I forgot to mention that in relation to the current blog topic it really makes sense that Michael would use the sonics or vocal qualities of his voice in these non verbals to convey something he may not have been able to convey literally with lyrics. Perhaps he felt unable to communicate to his love interest (whether one woman or us as a whole) in so many of these songs (on Invincible and all throughout his career) that the emotions sort of leak out in the form of non verbals; kind of like our body language leaks out of us. It would be interesting to examine his use of non verbals in songs in which he did not personally write too…again the leaking out of emotion as another dimension to feeling unable to verbally communicate. I hope this makes sense. Thank you.

  9. I agree that Michael loves to take a song that at first blush looks like a very intimate, personal love song, but when you look closer more expansive impersonal meanings emerge. I love the idea of singing these songs to the fans and to humanity, beautiful.

    I am totally delighted by the comments here about Speechless which I most definitely view as a hymn to God. Speechless goes beyond the personal/impersonal realm and into the transcendental or transpersonal. Fortunately, we do have Michael’s own commentary on the song and he claimed the song came to him very quickly after a water balloon fight! As he stared into the innocence of the children’s faces, he knew he was staring directly into the face of God and that is how the song came through. Regardless of your nationality or faith tradition, I would imagine if you saw standing in front of you your own personal idea of God walking the earth, Speechless would no doubt be a perfect expression of this bliss.

  10. I am so moved by Michael’s song “Speechless”, that I almost always cry when I listen to it. Because I feel the connection is there between Michael and God, I have instructed “Speechless” to be played at my own funeral along with “Will you be There” which I also feel so very moved by in the same way.

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